Skip to content Skip to navigation

2015 Up-and-Comer: Propeller Health: Managing Respiratory Health

July 8, 2015
by David Raths
| Reprints

To accompany our Healthcare Informatics 100 list of the largest companies in U.S. health information technology every year, we like to give readers a heads-up on some fast-growing companies that could very well make the HCI 100 in years to come. In fact, one of the companies we chose as an Up-and-Comer in 2014, Evolent Health, recently registered for a $100 million initial public offering.

Some of the firms in this group may not have much revenue yet, but their growth trajectory suggests they could have a significant impact on the healthcare sector. Others are coming at seemingly intractable problems in healthcare from completely new angles. Keep your eye on these six.

In 2010 David Van Sickle, Ph.D., founded a mobile medical device company called Asthmapolis to support both disease management and public health efforts.

Van Sickle had worked for many years as an asthma epidemiologist, including a stint with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As he studied outbreaks of respiratory disease, Van Sickle was essentially frustrated by the lack of timeliness and specificity of data.

David Van Sickle, Ph.D.

“We would get data from National Center for Health Statistics that was two to three years old,” he told Healthcare Informatics in an earlier interview. Data was about hospitalizations and deaths but not about emergency room visits or about missed school or work, he noted, even though there are approximately 10 million office visits and 25 million missed days of school or work because of asthma. Also they were only getting one piece of geographic data: the person’s address. Yet asthma events were also occurring elsewhere in the community.

“In terms of data, we were really only getting the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “I thought if we could capture time and location, that would be instrumental. We could overhaul this through technology.”

In 2006, while working at the University of Wisconsin, he started playing with chips and sensors with inhalers, trying to make it cheaper, lighter and smaller. His creation, Asthmapolis, attaches to a patient’s inhaler and wirelessly syncs with a smart phone. A patient can track their triggers and symptoms and learn more about their asthma over time, and share that information with their physician.

Over the last few years, the Madison, Wis., company has continued to grow and find health system partners under a new moniker, Propeller Health.

“We realized that there was an opportunity to put the same type of technology to work across other respiratory diseases, not just asthma,” Van Sickle says about the name change. “COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] patients are using a lot of the same medications and in fact had similar patterns to their symptoms.” Programs around COPD have grown to be half the company’s business, he says.

With investment from Safeguard Scientifics, the Social+Capital Partnership, and The California HealthCare Foundation, Propeller has grown to 45 employees and added a San Francisco office. It has three main types of customers: traditional health plans and insurance companies, at-risk provider groups and ACOs, and integrated health systems. For example, in 2014, the Arizona Care Network began offering its members with COPD the Propeller platform. The company also has worked with organizations such as Dignity Health, Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, and Amerigroup Florida.

At the fall 2014 Health 2.0 in Santa Clara, Calif., Van Sickle and Larry Brooks, the director of the New Business Model and Healthcare Innovation group at pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim discussed a pilot program in which Propeller built a sensor that could attach to the back of Boehringer Ingelheim’s Respimat inhaler.

“We are starting to work more closely with pharmaceutical companies like Boehringer Ingelheim to bring versions of the Propeller system to market for their specific medications,” Van Sickle says.

In Louisville, Ky., Propeller has been involved in a public/private partnership that has received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to follow 2,000 area residents using the Propeller device. “That program has a strong public health component,” he explained. “We can take information from daily life and put it to work, not just for the individual and their doctor, but for the broader municipality and applied public health efforts.”